How many US public libraries have actually closed?

When reading various posts and articles from various directions–some celebrating the promised end of public libraries, most bemoaning the decline of public libraries–I keep running into comments about so many public library closures.

Which got me to wondering: How many public libraries have actually closed permanently in the last year or decade?

Let’s be more specific: How many library agencies, defined as libraries that report statistics to their state library and/or IMLS, have shut down with no expectation of reopening, or have been closed two or more years?

One percent of the 9,000-odd library agencies in the US? Five percent? Half of one percent?

I can’t find good info at ALA. In fact, when I go looking for library closures, I see some surprising ambiguities. For example, you have the wifty claim that 15 states reported closure of “fewer than two” library outlets last year. Problematic on two counts: In what world is “fewer than two” anything other than one (unless it’s zero)–and what’s an outlet?

Going back a little, I see ALA press releases on the subject of the closure of the library in Colton, California in November 2009. Which is a tragedy–except that the Colton library was reopened within a year.

I didn’t find good info at IMLS either, although maybe I didn’t know where to look.

I’m certainly not trying to minimize budgetary problems. I know lots of branches have been shut down or had hours reduced; I also know that some libraries quite appropriately close some branches for the sake of the health of the library system as a whole.

(Where I live, two small branches are only open a couple of days a week, if that–but the result is that the main library, in a relatively compact city, has robust seven-day-a-week operating hours. Would we be better off if all three locations had reduced hours or no book budgets? Not in my opinion–but then, I’m closest to the main anyway. And I’m aware that one of the two branches is in a part of town where huge construction plans didn’t work out very well…)

I think the question deserves an honest answer because the assumption that libraries are closing like crazy hurts libraries–it makes it easier for those who don’t like public libraries to suggest that they’re anachronisms in any case.

Maybe there should even be two more refinements:

  1. How many public library agencies have closed in towns/cities that are still themselves viable communities? (If a town’s lost its schools, its businesses, its post office because nobody really lives there any more, the library’s likely to go as well…)
  2. How many public library agencies have opened in the last year or decade? Do library closures exceed new library openings?

If someone can point me to an authoritative and reliable source, I’d be pleased.

4 Responses to “How many US public libraries have actually closed?”

  1. Steve says:

    Good questions. I tried to address this issue last March (Library Closure Numbers Not Too Bad), but found the same issues – no current numbers. Being at a state library, I understand the annual reporting system, but still, it seems that something this important should have more in-depth and current data attention. What I was able to guesstimate was 0.4% fewer libraries since 2005.

  2. walt says:

    Steve: Thanks for that (which I had to rescue from spam, probably because there’s a link and you haven’t previously commented here).

    I’d be happy with year-old or two-year-old numbers, if they were more clearly defined–and if they really meant final closures, not temporary shutdowns. Maybe those numbers aren’t feasible. So far, in looking at 6,000 of the 9,000-odd libraries (with about 350 left to go), I’ve seen precisely one case of a declared final shutdown–but I suppose libraries that are closed are less likely to have ghost websites.

    I wouldn’t ever, ever suggest that the lack of clean numbers has anything to do with making library closures look like more of an issue than they really are (after all, a closure is much more dramatic than the slow loss of revenue), but…

  3. I, too, have some knowledge from serving as the State Data Coordinator.

    First, let me note that “library outlets” is the term used by IMLS (and the Census Bureau who actually does the data collection) to represent locations where library service is provided. This is distinct from “administrative entities” which represent “public libraries” or “public library systems” which may have one or more outlets, and whose administrative functions are located either in an “outlet” or in a separate physical location. [You might be surprised at how many of the latter exist, where the administration is located separately from any actually library services.]

    The problem is in how libraries report closures even to the state. There is a part of the data collection process which includes identifying changes in outlets, referred to in the “handbook” as Outlet Structure Changes. There is currently a code (and I think it is new for the 2010 data collection) for temporary closures (expected to be less than a year). Some of that information is available on the IMLS web site. Look under Research, and look for the “Full User Manual.” [After the comment above, I am loathe to put in a link. email me if you have trouble finding it, or want to discuss it further.]

    I am not clear about how much of that data comes through in the full data set, but I can certainly refer you to someone at IMLS who can tell you more.

  4. walt says:

    Hi Michael,

    Yours probably wouldn’t get trapped because you’ve commented here before.

    My understanding (possibly wrong) is that “library outlets” covers branches as well, and should be around 16,000; that’s a different question.

    I’m pleased to see some feedback. I’m just guessing that there’s no real answer available, but we’ll see.